How do you roll? #RPGaDay, Day 1

While I’ve always tried to respond to RPGaDay via Twitter (@thedicemechanic), I’ve never gone into any detail in a blog entry. This year, I’m going to try harder.

RPGaDay 2016

When it comes to dice-rolling, my preference is the real thing. There’s something about the feel of dice, the sound of them clattering across the table that tells me I’m playing a game. Apps are fine as an emergency, so you’re never without a convenient randomiser, but for play it has to be the real thing.

Virtual Dice

Funnily enough, my love for dice doesn’t extend to Virtual Tabletops. I’ve a bit of experience of both Fantasy Grounds and Virtual Tabletop Simulator, both of which have dice icons that have to be grabbed and thrown. I hate this. I much prefer roll20’s default, which quickly generates a number. Real dice I love, virtual dice just leave me cold.

Diceless

No thank you. Except sometimes. The idea of role-playing without a random element at all just doesn’t appeal. I have played Everway, Jonathan Tweet’s brilliantly clever game that incorporates three types of resolution mechanic in the one game: random (“fortune”, based on cards), story-based (“drama”, based on GM fiat) and deterministic (“karma”, highest stat wins). I have to say I loved that, but a lot of the appeal was in the sheer damn cleverness of the game.

super_arm_wrestlingI also think diceless philosophy should have a greater presence in traditional RPGs. In D&D, for example, a Str 18 Muscleman is significantly stronger than a Str 10 Norm: pretty much any test of strength should automatically by won by the former, rather than going to a Str vs Str roll where the weaker character wins 1 in 3 times (66/30, 4% tie)

But in general, I really love rolling dice!

Cards

Having said all of this, I am quite confident that I could be divorced from my love of dice by a card-based mechanic. I have always loved card-based elements within roleplaying games. Deadlands and TSR’s Marvel Super Heroic Adventure game both used cards within their resolution mechanics. WHFRP 3rd edition is almost entirely card-based, although as with D&D4e (as you’ll see from my most recent posts, currently very much in my thinking), it’s more about convenience of tracking powers than a bespoke card-based resolution mechanic.

However, when it comes to card play, there are a couple of examples that really stand out for me.

Everway cardsEverway’s vision deck is just a beautiful resolution mechanism that plays strongly against my deterministic, numerical nature. But I love it. The idea of drawing a card and then interpreting the result intuitively based on the image, it’s applicability to the situation or symbolism is just so wonderful in it’s profundity and utter uniqueness.

Torg drama deck

Torg’s Drama Deck does a great job of handing more control into the players’ hands. Different cards offer mechanical bonuses to actions, for engaging in subplots and for effective team work, which means success in tough encounters is truly as much down to player skill as character ability. In addition, the pacing mechanic built in to card play – with each player putting no more than 1 card per turn into their pool – means that players are incentivised to play the long game, building up their card resource round by round before triggering them at the last possible moment for a famous last-ditch victory. This was the first RPG mechanic that reflected the pacing seen in action movies, with the Indomitable Hero taking blow after blow, his gun knocked out of his reach, the villain at last getting his hands on that weapon just as the Hero’s out-stretched hand closes around a handy spanner and knocks his opponent out for the count.

What I really like about cards is how they appeal to my Gamist nature. I like the idea of player skill being able to influence success in RPGs. However, I’m not a big fan of games that induce analysis paralysis by including reams of tactical options, manoeuvres and quirky rules that incentivise rules-lawyerly play. Cards are a great compromise that allows for tactical game play without encouraging players to spend hours poring over rule books. They can also provide for “controlled randomness”, giving players’ the choice as to when they really want to succeed and when it might not matter so much.

So far, I’ve come across a number of card-based mechanics that add to an extra dimension to game play. However, I’ve yet to find the one that does everything I would want from a card-based system. When I do, it might finally be time to kiss those rolling randomisers goodbye…

 

 

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D&D4e Dungeon Bash Board Game – Playtest

After much planning, prepping and spreadsheet making, I ran a quick play test of my card-based D&D4e dungeon crawl concept. This is quite a long post, as I go into the design decisions I made and then the results of the test.

If you’ve got the stamina, read on!

Part 1: Dungeon Bash Board Game Design

Because of the way D&D4e is designed, each class is made up of a number of possible “Builds”, with each deck of Power Cards usually supporting 2 different builds. I embraced this and made each build into a distinct sub-class with its own specific power sets, e.g. Druid (Guardian) and Druid (Predator). For Fighters, I picked up a copy of the Martial Power deck, which supported two new sub-classes from that supplement: Battlerager Fighter and Tempest Fighter. However, it also had a number of specific powers relating to Spear/Polearms and others for Shields, so I used those to create a third sub-class: Hoplite.

Apart from the card-play rules, below, the other significant change I wanted to bring in was introducing a 13th Age Escalation die, to stop combat getting bogged down.

Character creation

Each character is made by selecting:

  • 2 sub-classes
  • Race – the usual D&D races, with a bit of editing to balance abilities out
  • Characteristic array – either [4,1,1,0,0,-1], [3,2,1,1,0,0] or [2,2,2,2,0,0]. Characteristics are rated solely in terms of their bonus value, not traditional D&D score. My character generation spreadsheet automatically allocates values to the priority attributes for the chosen sub-classes, but no reason why a player couldn’t over-ride that if they chose.
  • Feat – each character chooses 1 Feat, except humans who have 2.

One design choice I made was to cut back the number of Racial Abilities and Feats. The trouble with these is that in effect they create “rules exceptions” – the define ways that a particular character operates differently to the core game. My aim for this game was to make it faster-paced than the original D&D4e and the last thing I want is players constantly having to check a long list of abilities to see which, if any, apply in any given situation. I kept abilities that simply affect another number that can be hard-coded into the character sheet (e.g. Weapon Focus; Improved Initiative). For the same reason, I also removed gaining Feats as characters level up – the range of powers available means characters will have plenty to do without introducing new exceptions.

Game Play

The idea is that game play will be exactly like D&D, up until the point combat starts. That’s when the usual declaration of actions is taken up by card play.

  1. Each character has a hand of 4 cards
  2. Characters act in Initiative order (fixed value, no 1d20 roll)
  3. Characters get 3 actions:
  1. Standard – play a Standard Action card or discard any card to take a default Standard Action (e.g. basic Attack)
  2. Move – play a Move Action card or discard any card to take a default Move action
  3. Minor – play a Minor Action card or just declare a basic minor action (no discard required)
    1. Resolve actions
    2. Tidy up your cards:
  4. If you played a Daily action, it goes back in the box.
  5. If you played an Encounter action, it goes in your Discard pile
  6. If you played an At-Will action, it either goes in your Discard or you can choose to pick it back up
    1. Refill hand back up to 4 cards

The aim of discarding to Move is to burn through the deck more quickly and increase the chance of lots of interesting powers coming up and of discarded cards coming back around.

My original thought was that At-Will cards are discarded just like Encounter cards, but the trouble is some At-Will abilities are fundamental to particular classes (e.g. Druid (Predator) shape-changing into an animal), so discarding them would cripple those characters.

Part 2: Play Test

I used the very first encounter from the D&D4e Dungeon Delve sourcebook, a fairly simple encounter with a bunch of kobolds on a 10×10 map. The kobolds were set up as designed, with the PCs all entering from one corner of the map. The PCs were represented by:

Half-Elf Sorcerer/Rogue
Half-Orc Barbarian/Warden
Dwarf Druid/Invoker
Human Warlord/Paladin

The aim of the play test was to see how the combat card play worked, although checking the usability of the character sheets was also a desirable outcome.

It took about 7 rounds (I didn’t keep count) for the 4 PCs to dispatch the Kobolds. The Barbarian PC took a beating, but the Paladin fortunately drew his Lay on Hands card in the second round, so was able to bring him back from the brink. Other than that, it was all very straightforward, with the plethora of Encounter powers played meaning the PCs were at no risk of being out-classed.

Lessons Learned

From this simple test, I learned a huge amount about how to take this endeavour forward to completion:

  1. Card-play – generally worked well. Discarding to move was a tiny bit clunky, but I think it’s a necessary evil just to ensure the decks get well-used. Allowing player to keep hold of an At-Will power after it was played is consistent with original D&D4 rules, but severely reduces deck-cycling. Perhaps once played they remain face up in front of the player, effectively increasing hand size?
  2. Hand-size – four cards may be too few. Of the 4 characters we ran, over around 7 combat rounds, 3 times hands came up with no attack powers in of any kind. If making a basic attack is the optimal play, that’s not using the powers to their best advantage.
  3. Encounter design – this is critical. I used an off-the-shelf encounter, and it was boring. The setting was too small (every ranged power was automatically in range because of the size of the map) and there was a major choke-point which rendered dynamic movement virtually impossible.
  4. Monster design – this is also critical. Minions are fun in that they allow you to have large numbers of creatures that are killed in a single blow, but it’s anticlimactic to use a big power and find that you might just as well have done a basic attack. With more powers available, fewer monsters with more HPs are by far more interesting as opponents.
  5. Initiative – I decided to make Initiative scores fixed, removing the d20 roll. This worked fine. Only reduces one roll, but it’s one less number to keep track of.
  6. Weapons – stumbled across a design problem in my character sheet. Weapons have Proficiency Bonuses, and the character sheet combines that with the relevant stat to give a compound To Hit score. However, some powers use Weapons with a different characteristic, a value that the character sheet then doesn’t provide. Also, weapon-based attacks hit more often than magical powers, because they gain +2 or +3 from the weapon itself. This means that against Minions, who perish in a single blow, making a basic weapon attack is often the optimal choice over a more interesting but less accurate power.
  7. Missing is boring – there is nothing more dispiriting than playing a big power only to have it fail. Not only is it dispiriting, it’s boring. And non-weapon powers miss a lot, roughly 50/50. I’d rather powers hit more often but opponents have the Hit Points to suck them up. So Defences need to come down and/or accuracy needs to increase. I’ll probably remove Weapon proficiency bonuses and either give all characteristics a bump of +2 or +3, reduce defences by a similar amount, or perhaps widen the characteristic arrays (e.g. 6,5,3,1,1,0). Of them all, I think I prefer reducing the Defences, so the characters don’t look out of kilter if a player has D&D4 experience. This may imbalance the Powers, as it may be that Weapon-based power cards do less damage than non-Weapon-based to reflect the different accuracy: if so, I can increase weapon damage slightly to compensate.
  8. Escalation die – in this scenario, I didn’t use it. I’m not sure it’s actually needed if the encounter design is done right.
  9. Minor actions – only came up when there was a specific power that used a Minor action. I think they probably do need to remain though. Perhaps also need to discard when these are used, both for consistency and to maximise deck cycling.
  10. Monsters – bit boring really, they had nothing to do but stand still and slug it out. Either monsters or PCs need to have some objective to encourage dynamic play. Did think that monsters could be semi-automated using a deck of cards, but this would require a deck (albeit not a big one) per creature type and that would be a lot of extra work.
  11. Rolling damage – in a board game model, this may be an extraneous step. Fixed damage would certainly speed things up by maybe 10 seconds per successful attack.

Next Steps & Further Thoughts

A bigger piece of work is to re-evaluate the under-lying game design philosophy. What do I want this game to be? If it’s a slightly faster version of D&D4, then that aim is pretty much accomplished.

However, if I want to create a dynamic dungeon crawl game that is “powered by” D&D4e, then there’s actually a lot of additional work to do. Parts of game play are a bit clunky and there is a lot of clutter on the character sheets that either didn’t get used or was over-looked. Fundamentally, it is not very accessible for anyone without prior experience of D&D4e.

The powers should really sing out, and to do that I think I need to do even more to strip back extraneous elements.

  • Class abilities should be converted into Powers or removed – I think 1 signature power on the character sheet is probably fine, but much more than that becomes unwieldy.
  • Skills should become binary abilities with no skill value – you have it, or you don’t – and should probably have an associated Power card so its combat-use is clear (if applicable – e.g. Bluff).

However, this will lead to even more cards in the players’ deck, which means the issue of deck-cycling comes back up. The decision of “burn this card, but it’ll come up later” is very different to “burn this card, and it won’t come up again”. Part of the solution is to make combat last for more rounds, but it will probably take a minimum of 15 rounds for the deck to recycle unless more than 2 cards are discarded every turn, and this means PCs will be taking more damage. Theoretically there will be more healing powers out there, but the randomness of the deck creates a potentially vulnerability.

One thought on this is to tweak the Action economy somewhat.

  • Every character has 3 actions: Attack, a Move and another.
  • Each turn you play 3 cards, which you then reveal or discard each as necessary. E.g. if you have an Interrupt power, you need to put it face down and leave it there. Or you might flip over an Attack action, discard another for a Move, and leave the third face down to potentially discard to take an Opportunity Attack later on.
  • At the start of your turn, any cards remaining go on the discard pile.

This would really get the cards cycling round, because every round you’d always be getting rid of 3 cards. Which fundamentally is the whole reason I came up with this hair-brained scheme to begin with – D&D4 powers are fun, and I want to play with them ALL!

And next time I should definitely take some photos…

 

Some more D&D4th Character Sheet

My scheme for running a card-based D&D4 dungeon crawl board game has moved on apace. I’ve now updated my “simple” Character Sheet into a character generator for my funky re-tooling of the game.

Every character has two classes, each class being in fact a specialist sub-class of a number of the core D&D4e classes (based entirely on what Power Cards I could get my hands on at a sensible price!)

The sheet automatically allocates Attributes, Skills and Class powers based on the selected roles. I’ve stripped out many, many Feats, leaving only the very simplest and least mechanically intrusive. Characters will only get Feats at character creation.

The second page will be printed as the back of the character sheet. It’s currently all formatted to A4, but I’ll probably go for half that size for a nice compact character record sheet that maximises available table space for card play.

It’s a bit messy underneath, my priority here was speed rather than elegance!

Updated version here

Simple D&D 4th edition character sheet

I’ve been thinking more and more about running with my slightly silly idea for a D&D4th edition card-based dungeon crawl game. It would certainly have some challenges – managing the number of Encounter powers, for example, and how to balance simplicity with the exception-based rules of Feats – but I’ve decided to go for it.

With this in mind, I’ve created a simple Excel version of a D&D4 character sheet. It is designed to show little-to-no workings, just highlighting the important numbers that inform game play.

You can find it here: <link to character sheet>

What to do about Dragons…. Part 6: Bloody Red Rage

Last in a wonderful sequence of articles adding more nuance to the personalities and habits of the classic D&D dragons. Read ’em all, Follow and Like – this is great stuff.

dmleviathan

red dragons

Okay, let me ask you a question. You’re sitting in your living room, talking to a friend, and one of you mentions dragons. Now you may be talking about movies. video games, literature, comic books, RPGs, or any number of things. The source of the image doesn’t matter at this moment.

The part that does matter is the image that pops into your head when the word “dragon” is spoken. If you’re like most of us, its the mighty and majestic, fire breathing, Red Dragon. And who could blame you? These are the original beasts of legend that most of us were brought up knowing and being inspired by, to dream great and wonderful dreams.

First you need to understand. There are Chromatic Dragons. Then there are Dragon like GODS that walk among us. The Red would fall into the latter category . They are immense, both in the scale of their…

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D&D5 – Mucking about with Proficiency

One of the simplifications that lies at the heart of D&D5 is the Proficiency mechanic: one central value, derived from Character Level, added to your die roll. Whether you’re hitting stuff with a pointy stick or trying to remember the name of that ancient carbunculous statue: roll 1d20 and add Proficiency.

So obviously, that’s RIPE for complication!

So here’s a few proposals on how you can muck about with Proficiency, adding complexity and individuality without breaking the game (too badly!)

 

Proficiency: the five core functions

To begin with, let’s split Proficiency into its main functions:

  • Skill rolls
  • Saving throws
  • Spell-casting rolls
  • Combat (and here I’d suggest further diversifying into Melee Combat and Ranged Combat)

Every character will now have five separate values to represent their relative skill in different areas. So, as a Barbarian you may favour Melee Combat, Saves and Skills; as a Wizard you’ll want to focus as much on Spell-casting; a Bard may go with a more even spread.

Now for deriving and increasing these values. Here’s a few ideas:

Method 1: Simple Level Proficiency

All values start at +2. You get +1 to one Proficiency value of your choice at Level 1 and every level thereafter. You can’t add more than Level / 3 to any one value (rounded up to 1 for L2, with an absolute maximum of +8).

This allows a generalist character to have +6 in all five areas by L20, or a specialist to have a spread of +8/+8/+8/+3/+3.

A simple progression and easy to manage, but leads to over-powered specialists.

Method 1A: Capped Maximum

All values start at +2. You get +1 to one Proficiency value of your choice at Level 1 and every level thereafter. The highest value must be within 2 points of the lowest value.

This reduces the ability of a Specialist to run ahead, with a maximum spread of +7/+7/+7/+5/+5 at L20.  However, it does allow someone to have +4 to one ability at 2nd level. Almost certainly not game breaking, but does stretch the underlying assumptions of the mechanics a little.

Method 2: Points-buy

Each level you get a number of Proficiency Points equal to the new Level (i.e. at 3rd level, you get 3 points). Increasing Proficiency values costs as follows:

Value +3 +4 +5 +6 +7 +8
Cost 2 8 15 25 50 100

You can only increase 1 value per level. This allows for the following progressions:

  • Generalist:  focusing equally on all Proficiency values, you get +1 to one Proficiency value every level (except 18th). At 10th level you have +4/+4/+4/+4/+3 and end up with +6/+6/+6/+5/+5 at 20th level.
  • Ultra-specialist: focus on a single Proficiency, you hit +6/+2/+2/+2/+2 at 10th level and +8/+2 etc. at 20th level. Good luck with those Saving Throws…
  • Dual specialist: 10th level is +5/+5/+2 and 20th level is +7/+7/+2.
  • Priority 3: +5/+4/+4/+3/+2 at 10th, +7/+6/+6/+4/+2 at 20th
  • Focus 4: +4/+4/+4/+4/+2 at 10th, +6/+6/+6/+6/+4 at 20th

More granular, more choice, but complex book-keeping. And in reality, would anyone not go for something akin to Priority 3 or Focus 4? Might be better just defining some possible progressions at Level 1 and having players pick them.

Method 3: Class-based Proficiency

If you’re going to define Proficiency up front, why not just set it by class a la D&D3.x?

Firstly, change the default assumption back to 4 Proficiency types, dropping the split between Melee and Ranged combat. Set four core progressions:

  • Strong: +3 at 4th level and further +1 every 4 levels, until +7 at 20th
  • Standard: as per usual
  • Moderate: +1 at 1st level, +2 at 2nd level and +1 every 4 levels until +6 at 17th
  • Weak: +0 at 1st level, +1 at 2nd level and +1 every 5 levels until +4 at 17th

Then allocate classes one of two possible arrays:

  • Specialist class: Strong, Standard, Moderate, Weak
  • Generalist class: Standard, Standard, Moderate, Moderate

E.g. A Fighter would be Strong Attack, Standard Save, Moderate Skill, Weak Magic. A Bard could be Standard Magic, Standard Skill, Moderate Attack, Moderate Save.

Method 4: Simple Proficiency, revisited

Start with spread of +2/+2/+1/+1/+1. Maximum value of any Proficiency is 3 + Level /5 (rounded-down). Add one point to one Proficiency value as Method 1. At 5th level, a specialist could be +4/+3/+2/+1/+1. But by 20th level it’s evened out at +7/+6/+6/+6/+1.

Why put this last, rather than as Method 1B? Well, because if I were to implement one of these ideas, this is the one I’d go with. Balances customisability with simplicity. What’s not to like?!

TRAVELLER and “Hard Science Fiction” — I don’t think so…

Great blog post on why Traveller isn’t hard sci-fi – and was never meant to be.

Tales to Astound!

jack-vance-star-king-daw

In an interview from 1981, Marc Miller suggests that the biggest influences for Traveller were numerous. Of note were SF series by Jack Vance, E.C. Tubes, and Poul Anderson.

Now, here’s a thing:

There’s no “right” way to play Traveller, nor is there any “correct” setting for Traveller. The short stories and novels Miller references would never make a coherent whole. Like Gygax referencing several dozen fantasy authors, there is no single coherent world to be built out of these tales. They are there for inspiration for the Referee to build his or her own setting for play.

Keep in mind that this series of posts is about the 1977 & 1981 editions of Traveller Books 1-3. There is no mention of any specific setting in these book, and Miller in several interviews over the years makes it clear there that in 1977 when the game was released…

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